Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works? The Role of Works in Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels. By Alan P. Stanley. Volume 4, The Evangelical Theological Society Monograph Series. Edited by David W. Baker. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2006. 415 pp. $42.00.
Alan Stanley, who received his PhD from Dallas Theological Seminary, now serves both as a pastor and as an instructor at Mueller College of Ministries in Queensland, Australia. Stanley's book is an edited monograph version of his PhD dissertation and is volume 4 in the Evangelical Theological Society monograph series. I intend to purchase and to read Alan Stanley’s modified and accessible version of his dissertation under the title Salvation is More Complicated Than You Think: A Study on the Teachings of Jesus (Paternoster, 2007, 224 pp. $16.90).
Stanley’s book consists of twelve chapters. Chapter 1 offers rationale that validates the question raised by the book's title. Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works? Stanley contends that essentially the same question is raised by the teacher of the law (Luke 10:25-28), the Rich Young Ruler (Matt 19:21), and the jailer in Philippi. However, Paul’s response, in Acts 16:31, differs from how Jesus responds to the question. While the apostle Paul commands, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,” Jesus calls for deeds. Jesus continually calls for actions that include forgiving the sins of others, as conditions that must be fulfilled in order to receive God’s forgiveness, to receive eternal life, or to enter the kingdom.
Stanley’s thesis is clear: “the presence or absence of ‘works’ plays a significant role (in final judgment) in determining where one spends eternity.” Without dispute, his thesis is controversial. For many readers, his thesis will be threatening. Stanley realizes that he needs to demonstrate how his thesis agrees with the measure of orthodox evangelical belief that salvation is “by grace alone through faith alone.” Does Stanley’s understanding of Jesus’ teaching concerning salvation and deeds agree with the common evangelical affirmation with regard to justification by grace through faith apart from “works of the law”? Throughout the latter portion of chapter 1 Stanley considers the need for a book such as his, he anticipates objections to his thesis, and he outlines an approach for arguing his thesis.
Stanley traces various historical theological explanations concerning the relationship between works and salvation in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles throughout chapter 2. He grounds his thesis within the range of theological expressions gathered from the early church theological fathers to more recent times. Stanley demonstrates that the church’s theologians did not sign in unison concerning the relation between works and salvation but with diverse voices, sometimes harmoniously but sometimes with conflicting sounds. In this chapter Stanley identifies passages of Scripture that have held prominence in the church’s theologians’ diverse explanations concerning this relationship. The chapter does one further thing. It offers a historical and theological framework for assessing the author’s own theological expressions concerning the relationship between works and salvation.
In chapter 3 Stanley locates his own work on the relationship between salvation and works within the range of post-Reformation scholarship concerning the relationship between works and salvation within Judaism. Primarily, his objective is to show the historical and theological backdrop within which Jesus taught. Secondly, Stanley provides critical interaction concerning E. P. Sanders’s thesis that Judaism was rooted in grace not in works-righteousness (Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion). Finally, the chapter evaluates the fallout of Sanders’s thesis on scholarly discussions concerning the relationship between works and salvation in Paul’s letters but also in the Gospels.
Chapters 4 and 5 provide Stanley’s own understanding of the relationship between works and salvation. His concentration is on the concepts of “works” and “salvation” in the Synoptic Gospels. Nevertheless, he offers a scan of the whole New Testament. Most basic concerning Stanley’s argument is the “already” and “not yet” nature of salvation. In these two chapters Stanley to endeavors to demonstrate how his own theological voice concerning “works” and “salvation” blend harmoniously with an expanding chorus of evangelical voices that cogently make the same argument.
Chapters 6 through 11 unpack the significance of what Stanley argues in chapters 4 and 5. The author contends that Jesus’ teaching concerning the relationship between works and salvation entails works not simply as evidence of conversion but also as a condition for receiving final salvation. Stanley offers careful nuance concerning his use of the term “condition” for fear that someone may allege that he views the relationship as one that entails the notion of achieving merit with God. Stanley argues that when Scripture presents salvation as “already” possessed, works and endurance are properly conceived of as evidence of salvation. Likewise, he insists that when Scripture presents salvation as “not yet” attained, we properly conceive of works and endurance as a condition of salvation. Stanley argues this thesis by addressing crucial issues in the Synoptic Gospels under the following chapter titles: “Requirements for Entering the Kingdom” (chapter 6); “Attaining Eternal Life” (chapter 7); “The Role of Discipleship in Salvation” (chapter 8); “The Role of Endurance in Salvation” (chapter 9); “The Role of Treating Others in Salvation” (chapter 10); and “The Role of Judgment in Salvation” (chapter 11).
Stanley draws his argument to a conclusion in chapter 12. He does this by observing that the answer one gives to the question asked by his book’s title depends on the outlook on salvation that is present within the biblical passage under review. By outlook, Stanley refers to whether the passage’s orientation is toward the beginning of salvation (conversion) or toward the end of salvation (consummation). He insists that in passages where Jesus speaks of initial conversion, not of final salvation, Jesus links works to salvation as evidence of salvation. However, wherever Jesus is speaking of salvation’s consummation in the eschaton, not conversion, Jesus presents works as a condition of salvation. Whenever Jesus speaks of persevering unto final salvation, which is an event that is yet to come and not an event that has already occurred, we correctly speak of perseverance as a necessary condition in order that we might be saved.
Stanley’s thesis is courageous. Some, perhaps many, will say that his thesis is wrong. This book is published as debates over Paul’s teaching concerning justification continue to escalate, a dispute incited mainly by what is called “the New Perspective on Paul.” Stanley draws notable distinctions between his work on Jesus’ teaching on the relationship between works and salvation from the “covenantal nomism,” the view of E. P. Sanders in his work on Second Temple Judaism and Paul’s letters. Though Stanley clearly draws distinctions, it is doubtful that he will escape indictment as siding with the “new perspective.” Some will impute guilt by association. I had to smile, even chuckle, at one statement that survived editorial revision. I did not realize that E. P. Sanders was so aged; he has aged well: “The writings at Qumran, of which only a fraction existed in Sanders’ time. . .” (p. 107).
If ever a book called for sympathetic reading and what D. A. Carson calls “distanciation,” Stanley’s book does. Lamentably, his cautions and clarifications will go unheeded, despite his care to develop and to demonstrate the validity of his thesis. Despite his caution to guard against misunderstanding, Stanley occasionally makes statements that will arouse dismissive response. For example, after he acknowledges that humans are entirely dependent upon God for the gift of salvation and for the capability to do any good deeds, Stanley observes, “Yet it is true that Paul never teaches salvation by faith alone if we understand salvation as a broad term” (p. 321). Because Stanley is discussing Ephesians 2:8-9, he owes the reader an explanation concerning the breadth of the term “salvation” but also of other expressions to avoid dismissive indictment from some readers. Stanley does provide thoughtful distinction between pre-conversion works and post-conversion works, to clarify his rather arresting statement. Nevertheless, what does “faith” entail? Fuller explanation concerning the relationship between faith and good works would go a long way to protect him against being misunderstood. As I have argued on this blog, I fear that Stanley confounds categories when he asserts, “In the last analysis the decision as to who is saved will be made not on the basis of faith but works” (p. 321)? May I suggest that it would be better to say that God’s final verdict concerning salvation will not be rendered “on the basis of faith” but rather “according to deeds”? As I have observed at various times on this blog, to some I may seem excessively cautious to distinguish the means of salvation from the grounds of salvation. Yet, the distinction seems crucial to our Protestant and evangelical faith.
If one will understand Stanley’s thesis and the development of that thesis, one will have to follow his distinction between the already and not yet aspects of salvation. Understanding these is vital for developing a coherent and compatible understanding of Jesus’ teaching concerning the role of works in relation to salvation. If one does not accept this distinction one will hardly accept Stanley’s explanation that Jesus teaches that works relate to salvation not always nor even primarily as evidence of salvation already begun. Stanley correctly shows that the principal way that the Synoptic Gospels portray the relationship between works and salvation is that Jesus speaks more frequently of “works as a condition for final salvation or entrance into the eschatological kingdom” (p. 334). What does Stanley mean? He means that if “works (e.g., endurance, love, mercy, forgiveness) are not present then final salvation will not be granted” (p. 334). Despite his clarity, Stanley occasionally confuses the reader, such as when he offers his explanation of Colossians 1:22-23. Stanley mistakes the verb of the apodosis as “you have been reconciled” instead of “to present you.”
Some readers may be annoyed by the somewhat parochial dimension that manifests itself throughout the book but especially in chapters 1 and 12. Understandably, a dissertation submitted for a PhD at Dallas Theological Seminary on the relationship between works and salvation in Jesus’ teaching would interact with the marginal views of those associated with the Grace Evangelical Society, views historically tied to Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, and various other mostly former professors.
I commend Stanley’s book for serious readers who desire to wrestle with the relationship between works and salvation in the Synoptic Gospels. No one who desires to preach, teach, or write accurately concerning salvation and works in the Synoptic Gospels can afford to ignore Stanley’s book. For those who may find the book rather challenging may prefer Stanley’s Salvation is More Complicated Than You Think less daunting.
A. B. Caneday
Northwestern College, Saint Paul, Minnesota
This review is a thoroughly rewritten version of my review that will be published in the next issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Find the above review on the Amazon.com web page here.
Find my published review in JETS below.
Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works, By Alan P